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Diversity in Independent TV Documentaries: Is Public TV Different?


A CMSI audit of documentary series on commercial and public TV has found that the most diverse documentary series on TV are Independent Lens and POV, public TV series. They are more diverse than both commercial series and other public TV series. But commercial TV has plenty of women and minority producers, and is ahead of most public TV shows in key diversity areas.

The implications: Independent filmmakers with a diverse team or characters have options these days, but their best bet is still public TV. Public TV can celebrate the diversity in Independent Lens and POV, but can’t boast about consistent diversity in other doc series. 

Public TV and Indies.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which channels the federal dollars to stations and programs, proudly announces on its website that “Digital, Diversity, and Dialogue are the framework for public media's service to America” and founded “to champion the principles of diversity and excellence of programming, responsiveness to local communities, and service to all.”

But it’s not always easy, given public TV’s funding structure and history, to demonstrate diversity. That’s where independent filmmakers have always made a difference. Their programs have often brought voices and perspectives to TV and to the American public that go beyond TV’s racial, gender, socio-economic and geographic default settings.

It’s always taken effort, although, as IDA lifetime achievement award-winner Gordon Quinn has often explained, the fact that public TV is public made it possible to make that effort. Independent pressure on public TV to be more diverse—more representative of America’s diversity--resulted in the creation of a series showcasing independent work, POV, in 1988. As well, in the same year, Congress ordered the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create the Independent Television Service (ITVS), to co-produce diverse and innovative independent work offered to public TV. By 1999, ITVS developed a showcase series, Independent Lens, co-curated with PBS.

Last year, both Independent Lens and POV were threatened with removal from their prime-time PBS spot—a life-threatening move for both series, which are tied contractually to public TV. The pressure began again. After nation-wide protest from independents, non-profits and viewers, arguing the need for diversity, PBS pledged a one-year commitment to the programs.

But today, with HBO, CNN, Pivot, Netflix, Amazon and many more jockeying for documentaries, is public TV so distinctive? Could indies with diverse perspectives and voices go elsewhere? Could viewers? To find out, we counted female and minority participation in commercial and public documentaries.

How we counted.

We examined 165 documentaries that aired in either the 2014 or 2014-2105 season in the U.S. We focused on social-issue documentaries produced by independent makers, as represented in series that curate authorial works. For commercial TV, we chose HBO Documentaries and CNN Documentaries. For public TV, we chose Independent Lens and POV. These four series are all series seriously considered by independent filmmakers and their agents when deciding on a broadcast partner for the same kind of social-issue work.

We also, for comparison within public TV, selected for analysis three other public TV series featuring social issue documentaries. These series often employ independent producers to work on these programs, and sometimes even select programs based on pitches by them, but maintain control over the ultimate design and look of the program. We chose two series that feature social issues, Frontline and American Experience, and American Masters, an arts series featuring the social context of performance. We chose these other series on public television to see whether curation of independent authorial work was more significant in explaining minority and female representation than the venue of public broadcasting itself.

We asked questions about both minority and female participation, both as directors and producers. In asking about minority makers, our standard was whether at least one member of the relevant group was a U.S. minority within the federal categories. We also asked whether the documentaries featured minority, international and/or female characters in a major role, which was considered as recurring characters who shape the core narrative and motivate the arc of the action or explanation. For international characters of color, we included Middle Eastern. In all cases, any maker or character who occurred in two categories, e.g. minority and female, was counted in both.

We combined results for Independent Lens and POV, whose results were similarand for HBO Documentaries and CNN Documentaries, which also featured similar results.

What we found.

Independent Lens and POV, which have similar results, feature many more programs that have at least one minority director than either commercial TV or any other public TV program.

Independent Lens and POV feature more films with at least one women director than HBO and CNN, but not by as large a margin as directors. Also, one other public TV show featured many women directors.

Independent Lens and POV feature more films with at least one minority character or international character of color than both commercial and public TV, with the exception of Frontline, which features many international characters of color.

But in one area, commercial TV excels: the category of producers, a category that can cover a lot of roles, from arranging a shoot to filming to fundraising. But one thing is in common: producers do not get authorial credit. Given commercial TV’s record of minority producers, it also seems that often being a producer does not necessarily lead to opportunities as director.